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Psychologists in Denial About Torture

ColumnAugust 29, 2007

    Last weekend, the American Psychological Association rejected a moratorium that would have prevented its member psychologists from participating in interrogations at U.S. detention centers at places like Guantanamo Bay and secret CIA “black sites” around the world. Instead, the 148,000-member organization passed a resolution at its annual meeting in San Francisco banning psychologists from participating in interrogations that employ certain harsh techniques. Many psychologists within the APA feel the resolution did not go far enough.

    The issue of torture and interrogations has become a sore spot for the APA, the world’s largest group of psychologists. The American Medical Association and the American Psychiatric Association both outright prohibit their members from participating in interrogations at locations where basic human rights are not guaranteed, like Guantanamo. These groups have been joined by others, like the American Translators Association and the Society for Ethnomusicology (since translation is essential in interrogations, and sustained, blaring music has been used as a form of torture).

    Central to the debate is the question “Are psychologists participating in torture?” While the Bush administration repeatedly denies that it uses torture, a leaked report of the International Committee of the Red Cross says certain U.S. methods used are “tantamount to torture.”

    At a fiery APA town-hall meeting after the vote, Dr. Steven Reisner, one of the leading proponents of a moratorium, asked, “I want to know if passing this resolution prohibits psychologists from being involved in the enhanced interrogation techniques that the president of the United States authorized can take place at CIA black sites.”

    Defenders of the APA’s position are clear: Psychologists need to be present at these interrogations to protect the prisoners, to ensure that the interrogators do not go over the line. Critics argue that psychologists are there to help interrogators push the line further and further, to consult with the interrogators on how best to break the prisoners.

    Dr. Jeffrey Kaye, a psychologist with Survivors International, a torture survivors group, says there is a loophole: Psychologists cannot participate in harsh interrogations, but they can participate in harsh detention conditions. He said: “You see, they don’t use sleep deprivation while they’re interrogating you, they use it before they interrogate you, as part of the conditions of detention, to soften you up for the interrogation. So the winner today, and I’m sure their lawyers are very happy, is the CIA.”

    As the convention began, Anthony Romero of the American Civil Liberties Union issued a letter to the APA, urging a moratorium, warning that psychologists faced legal liability or even prosecution. “We have found troubling evidence of the collusion of medical psychologists in the development and implementation of procedures intended to inflict psychological harm on prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other facilities.”

    In a surreal moment at the opening APA session on ethics and interrogations, a Pentagon interrogator, “Dr. Katherine Sherwood” (she appeared to be using a pseudonym), wanted the audience to know that the interrogations were conducted professionally. She said she was denied access to prisoner medical records: “I like to bake at home for the detainees and bring home-baked goods to our sessions. I needed to know whether or not a detainee had a peanut allergy, and that could be very serious. There was a process in place where … the liaison could ask the medical personnel, and they could choose whether or not to give a response.”

    Her baking gives new meaning to the term BSCT psychologists (pronounced biscuit), which stands for Behavioral Science Consultation Team. They were the psychologists who helped develop the harsh interrogation techniques, and who the International Committee of the Red Cross report said conveyed information about detainee “mental health and vulnerabilities,” to help break them down psychologically.

    Romero’s ACLU letter ended by saying: “The history of torture is inexorably linked to the misuse of scientific and medical knowledge. As we move fully into the 21st century, it is no longer enough to denounce or to speak out against torture; rather, we must sever the connection between healers and tormentors once and for all. As guardians of the mind, psychologists are duty bound to promote the humane treatment of all people.”

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